The Future of Music Could Be Unbounded Revisionism


Is the ability of an artist to make changes to their work after it is initially released a good thing?


Vinyl records may be on their way back. However, music consumption trends are moving farther and farther away from sitting down and listening to a single long playing piece of music that you own. In the last few years, all-you-can-eat streaming services have revolutionized the way we consume music. When Spotify first went live in the US, I read a number of tweets gleefully swearing off buying digital music outside of a streaming service subscription. People just didn’t seem concerned about owning the music they were listening to anymore. Ownership just doesn’t carry the same weight when your roommate can copy all of the music you own from your hard drive.

Yet another new trend may be on the verge of emerging, though, and it could alter the way we consume music in pretty radical ways.

The artist at the forefront of this new trend is Kanye West. To put it politely, I’ve never been a fan of Kanye, but he does have some interesting ideas. I suppose what he lacks in humility, he makes up for with a kind of restless ingenuity. I recently came across news of his revisionism when it comes to his most recent album, The Life of Pablo. The piece lists the changes made to the album since it was originally posted on the streaming music service TIDAL.

Some examples of the changes cited are:

  • Ultra Light Beam: The choir is mixed better. Everyone’s vocals except Chancer the Rapper have a lot more reverb. There’s also new lyrics from Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin.
  • Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1: Background vocals at the end of Kanye’s verse and a little on the hook. The snare isn’t as loud as the original release. Beat is a lot more clear.
  • Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2: New mix includes the addition of a bass line beginning at the 1:08 mark.

Kanye himself refers to the album as a “living breathing changing creative expression.”

https://twitter.com/kanyewest/status/709872072604913664


The nature of a digital distribution system lends itself to this kind of revisionism. While, at first, dissemination of music via the internet modeled older practices of giving the listener a copy of a whole and complete, static album (like a vinyl long player), or at least a single song (like a vinyl 7”), with the ascendancy of streaming music services, that model is no longer necessarily optimal. Whether distributed on plastic compact discs, cassettes, or vinyl records, music has traditionally been transferred to the user with what we in the software business refer to as a perpetual license. The user is licensed to the work, in its original state, in perpetuity. In other words, the listener owns that static artifact of recorded sound.

With the rise of streaming services, as the licensing model changes, the recording is allowed to become more of a living artifact. The user is licensed to the work as long as it is made available by the streaming service and the label/artist and as long as the user has a membership to the service. The user has no long-term license to the music in any particular form. Therefore, the work can be altered with no notice to the listener. The potential impact of this shows up in the recent articles about Kanye’s revisions: many thought he had revised his older album Yeezus, on Apple Music, until it was discovered that the album had existed in a different form on that service all along. The artist doesn’t have to bring attention to changes. Clearly, it is up to the user to differentiate.

Who would want George Lucas sneaking into their house to replace their copies of the original Star Wars movies with the nearly universally reviled enhanced versions?

Of course, updating works of art is not completely new. Re-released albums and movies frequently contain bonus content, such as live tracks or commentary. Previously, though, the system of distribution only introduced new versions of a work that did not supplant the original. If someone owned the original release of a work, the choice was theirs whether or not to purchase the new version. It wasn’t as if an artist like Kevin Shields, who seems congenitally predisposed to tinkering, could change Loveless on you in-between listens. With the new ephemeral nature of streaming music, that is possible. It’s happening with Kanye and my guess is his revisionism only represents the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond the battle with ownership culture that streaming poses, listeners now have to contend with updates, whether expected or not, to their favorite music recordings. This could have both positive and negative consequences. Frequently, remastered makes older recordings sound better, as technology improvements allow to enhance the sound. Of course, there is the other side. Who would want George Lucas sneaking into their house to replace their copies of the original Star Wars movies with the nearly universally reviled enhanced versions? While this development gives the creator more control, that could ultimately be at the expense of the consumer.

It will be interesting to see what happens in this space. Musicians have less to gain commercially by making changes to an album already released on a streaming service. For some, though, it could be tempting to keep tweaking until the work sounds exactly the way they want. For listeners, this could be exciting and innovative or it could end up being simply frustrating.

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